Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ben Goldacre

About Dr Ben Goldacre

ben goldacre Bad Science site

Ben is a [coughs] award winning writer, broadcaster, and medical doctor who has written the weekly Bad Science column in the Guardian since 2003.

He appears regularly on Radio 4 and TV, and has written for the Guardian, Time Out, New Statesman, and the British Medical Journal as well as various book chapters.

“Bad Science” the book (4th Estate) is out now, it’s sold out in many bookstores but the publishers have ordered an emergency second print run which will appear in two days.

He has won numerous awards, including “Best Freelancer” at the Medical Journalists Awards 2006, the Healthwatch Award in 2006, “Best Feature” at the British Science Writers Awards twice, for 2003 and 2005, and the Royal Statistical Society’s first Award For Statistical Excellence in Journalism (£250 and an engraved crystal paperweight!).

I do not present myself as a “leading expert”, and I rarely even mention being a doctor, on the grounds that “arguing from authority” is one of the biggest problems in the way that science is misrepresented by the media. However, if you were to ask my mother, she would tell you that Ben studied Medicine at Magdalen College Oxford where he also edited Isis, the Oxford University Magazine. He left in 1995 with a First: before going on to clinical medicine at UCL, he was a visiting researcher in cognitive neurosciences at the University of Milan, working on fMRI brain scans of language and executive function, worked at Liberty the human rights organisation, and was also funded by the British Academy to do a Masters degree in Philosophy at King’s.

ben goldacre

Monday, February 16, 2009

H. L. Mencken

"The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.

H. L. Mencken The Baltimore Sun

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Republicans: From One-Party Rule to Cry-Baby Caucus

Greg Saunders:
From One-Party Rule to Cry-Baby Caucus
from This Modern World 2009-02-04

It’s astounding to me that the Republican party can complain with a straight face that they aren’t getting enough input into the stimulus package (or any other Obama Administration agenda items). I think every Democrat who appears on TV (both of them) should do nothing but remind America how things worked in D.C. a few short years ago when the Republicans held a slimmer lead :

Congress’s majority parties have always dominated legislative action, but they typically have given the minority some voice — even if it has amounted to little more than a floor vote on a sure-to-lose alternative bill, or conference committee recommendations destined to be rejected along party lines. Often, majority party leaders have made enough concessions to attract a few votes from across the aisle, withstand some intra-party defections and tout a piece of legislation as “bipartisan.” (The conference on the original Medicare bill in 1965, when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress, included Republicans. Roughly half of all House and Senate Republicans voted for the final legislation.)

Recently, however, GOP leaders have largely dispensed with such niceties. Senate Republicans rewrote a massive (and still-pending) energy bill with zero Democratic participation. And top House and Senate Republicans negotiated the complex Medicare bill with only two conciliation-minded Democrats — Sens. John Breaux (La.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) — in the room. (When some House Democrats barged in one day, Thomas, the Ways and Means chairman, halted the meeting until they left.)
. . .
These hardball techniques underscore a paradox of current U.S. politics: The electorate is almost evenly divided, but federal policymaking is increasingly one-sided. With only the narrowest of House and Senate margins, Republican leaders are deploying scorched-earth, compromise-be-damned tactics, as if they ruled the nation 80-20, not 51-49. Rather than building broader consensus, they have decided they can’t afford centrist compromises that might attract some Democratic support but lose even more votes from the GOP conservative wing.
. . .
Whereas House Republicans berated Democratic speaker Jim Wright in 1987 for extending a roll call — normally 15 minutes — by 10 more minutes, Hastert last month obliterated that record in order to cajole and badger enough colleagues into backing the Medicare bill. Sometimes the leaders’ partisanship seems almost cartoonish, as when Thomas summoned Capitol police to evict Democrats from a quiet meeting room. (The cops refused.)

Lest we pretend that the Republicans in Congress are sincere about their opposition to the tax-and-spend (get a new line, guys) nature of the stimulus bill, lemme remind you of what the GOP did when they controlled every branch of the federal government :

[Former Treasury Secretary Paul] O’Neill had been preaching that a fiscal crisis was looming and more tax cuts would exacerbate it. But others in the White House saw a chance to capitalize on the historic Republican congressional gains in the 2002 elections. Surely, Cheney would not be so smug. He would hear O’Neill out. In an economic meeting in the Vice President’s office, O’Neill started pitching, describing how the numbers showed that growing budget deficits threatened the economy. Cheney cut him off. “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” he said. O’Neill was too dumbfounded to respond. Cheney continued: “We won the midterms. This is our due.”

To sum up the last eight years, we’ve had one-party rule in Washington D.C. which had “fiscal conservatives” feeling entitled to spend taxpayer money like drunken sailors (which exacerbated the very fiscal crisis that the current Congress is trying to address). When the minority party tried to insert themselves in the legislative process, they were not only shunned completely, but the GOP leadership would shut down meetings until they left, hold open votes for hours until they got the results they wanted, and would actually call the police to have Democrats removed from meetings. Where the HELL do these guys get off complaining about partisanship?

This quote from the first article serves as a prescient coda on the hyperpartisan Bush years :

Nearly half the electorate — people who chose Democrats to represent them in Congress — are, to an increasing degree, disenfranchised. Their representatives aren’t simply outvoted on the House and Senate floors, they’re not even present when key legislation is discussed and refined. The pendulum always swings back eventually, though, and should the White House and Congress shift hands, this year’s brutal and partisan practices may ensure a retaliatory cycle in which each aggrieved party feels compelled to wreak vengeance, lest it be viewed as wimpish.

Even GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona recently warned: “The Republicans had better hope that the Democrats never regain the majority.”

Much to the chagrin of many on the left, Barack Obama is actually sincere about reaching across the aisle. He has added Republicans to his cabinet, made multiple efforts to include Republican leaders in the legislative process, and has made it clear that he wants to work in a bipartisan manner. If the Republican leaders want more, they can piss off. They’re getting a much better deal than Democrats ever got (nobody has called the cops yet). The GOP got their asses handed to them two election cycles in a row. The American people have soundly rejected the last eight years of Republican domination.

We won. This is our due.

posted by Greg Saunders at 10:05 PM | link

Sunday, February 1, 2009

a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers

With God On Our Side?

President Obama acknowledged nonreligious Americans in his Inaugural Address. Will his administration re-separate church and state?

Paul Waldman | January 27, 2009 | web only
The American Prospect Magazine

We know that Barack Obama is all about inclusion. Still, it was a little surprising to hear him give a nod in his Inaugural Address to a group that has been one of America's most disdained, particularly when it comes to politics. "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers," he said, no doubt bringing a smile to millions of faces around the country, and a scowl to millions more.

It may be that this is the last we'll hear from President Obama on the topic, or it may be that he'll actually take steps to dial back the efforts some have made over the last few years to make the federal government as Christian as possible. Either way, the inclusion of nonbelievers didn't represent all that much of a political risk. But it was noteworthy nonetheless, particularly coming at the conclusion of what was in some ways the most sectarian administration in our history. George W. Bush not only talked frequently about his Christianity (much more often than our first born-again president, Jimmy Carter), he also funneled millions of tax dollars to groups that used social services as a tool for evangelizing. Recall that David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, wrote in his book The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush that the first words he heard on his first day in the Bush White House were "Missed you at bible study" (though the reproach was actually directed at fellow speechwriter Michael Gerson, not Frum).

But we should give a bit of credit where it's due. Despite his own personal religious fervor, the former president made efforts to be ecumenical in his comments on the topic of faith (including what for my money is the greatest Bush quotation of all time: "I couldn't imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah"). He even, on occasion, reached out to people who don't believe in a supreme being, acknowledging that they too exist, and are real Americans to boot. It was a step up from his father, who got asked in August 1988, as a candidate for the presidency, whether he acknowledged "the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists." Bush's reply was quite remarkable: "I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."

In the intervening years, it didn't exactly become a career killer to give the back of the hand to nonreligious voters. When I spoke last week to Lori Lipman Brown, the director of the Secular Coalition for America, she was cautiously optimistic about the Obama administration. Brown, often called "the atheists' lobbyist," noted that the group has been included in meetings about the transition, and "just the fact that he's conscious of including us" is a step up.

Obama has already said he wants to expand the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, which under Bush had become something of a slush fund for politically connected religious groups. But he also made clear, in a speech he gave in July, that in his administration, the office will "follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs." Though the Secular Coalition doesn't think there should even be such an office, "it will not look like a carbon copy of what it has been for the last eight years," says Brown. As for the people staffing the office -- who will actually make the decisions about which organizations get grants -- they have yet to be chosen. But Brown says, "Whoever it is, I can't imagine it being half as bad as it was under President Bush."

That's the good news. You can get a heavy dose of the bad news from Mikey Weinstein, who runs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). Weinstein -- an Air Force Academy graduate, former JAG officer, and former Reagan administration official -- is the leading opponent of the expanding influence of not just evangelical Christianity but fundamentalist Christianity in the armed forces. Weinstein's organization has over 11,000 active-duty members who are troubled by what they've seen and experienced. They tell stories of commanders proselytizing to their troops, of forced participation in religious services, and of harassment, beatings, and death threats for those who question whether it's appropriate for the military to be a subsidiary of Team Jesus (though Weinstein says 96 percent of his active-duty members are Christian, it's usually the atheists and Jews who are willing to take their stories public).

The problem is pervasive and multifaceted. The typical military chaplain isn't a friendly Father Mulcahy, there with a reassuring hand on anyone's shoulder; the chaplaincy has become dominated by those who see their role as winning converts to evangelical Christianity. U.S. military installations around the world have chapters of the Officers' Christian Fellowship, whose goals could fairly be described as turning the U.S. military into the Army of God. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers are not just trying to convert their fellow warriors to a particular brand of Christianity, they're aiming their evangelism at the local population (including handing out translated copies of the New Testament). For his work exposing and combating religious influence in the military, Weinstein has had his windows shot at and swastikas written on the side of his house. He says he gets eight to 12 death threats a week.

Though Robert Gates, whom Barack Obama asked to stay on as secretary of defense, is a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the MRFF, Weinstein thought that if nothing else, he could get the Obama administration to hear him out on the scope of the problem. Although he reached out to the Obama team through a multitude of sources, "we have found them to be unbelievably unapproachable and incredibly disinterested." Weinstein says he was hopeful that Obama would be willing to take steps to change the military's culture around religion. But so far, he has been unable to even get anyone to talk to him about the issue, much less pledge that something will be done.

Perhaps the administration sees this as far down on the list of priorities it needs to address. The unfortunate reality is that you don't pay much of a political price for turning a cold shoulder to those who want to reduce the influence of religion on government, or to the nonreligious themselves. (Incidentally, the Secular Coalition wasn't too excited about Obama using the term "nonbelievers," since people who don't believe in God do believe in lots of things, just not God. They prefer the term "nontheist.") Americans are unabashed about their dislike of the godless. A 2007 Gallup poll found that while 88 percent of respondents said they would vote for a woman, 72 percent would vote for a Mormon, and 55 percent would vote for a homosexual, only 45 percent would vote for an atheist.

Nonetheless, as a group, the nonreligious are growing faster than Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, or any other religious group. A recent large survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 16 percent of the population is either atheist, agnostic, or doesn't affiliate with any religion. According to the General Social Survey, the number of people who answer "none" when asked which religion they identify with has grown from 6.9 percent in 1986, to 11.9 percent in 1996, to 15.9 percent in 2006. These numbers are even higher among the young; in the Pew survey, fully one-quarter of adults under 30 don't affiliate with any religion.

Despite these numbers, those who want complete acceptance for those who don't believe that their fates are controlled from above the clouds are facing a long battle. Lori Lipman Brown says that 21 members of Congress have privately told her group that they don't believe in God, yet the number of "out" secular members stands at a grand total of one -- California's Pete Stark.

Some of the Bush policies Obama has already undone or might reverse in the future -- like the "global gag rule" (already taken care of) or the federal mandate for "abstinence only" sex education (that one will take some doing) -- have their origins in a particular religious viewpoint. Obama will almost certainly justify his policies on these issues by citing something other than a desire to purge the government of undue religious influence. Obama mentioned his Christian faith often during the campaign -- in part to counter rumors that he was a Muslim but also to assure the majority of Americans who are religious that he was one of them (and let's be honest -- he didn't have to work too hard to secure the secular vote).

And there's the rub. There are some things Obama can do that will be easy, like reversing the global gag rule (pro-lifers squawked, but everyone understood that they were just going through the motions). His real test will be on the things that will be hard, that will bring fevered opposition and threaten a wide backlash.

In 1943, the Supreme Court heard the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, in which a group of young Jehovah's Witnesses was suspended from public school for refusing to salute the American flag, which would have violated their religious beliefs. Writing for an 8-1 majority, Justice Robert Jackson made clear that the foundation of America is the idea that we all are free to believe what we wish, and even if our beliefs are not widely shared, it makes us no less American. "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," Jackson wrote, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." That is the American creed. We don't yet know how hard the new administration will work to make it a reality.